Tasbikassoulet: French stew, Egyptian technique

The persistent prestige of French cuisine in today’s food cultures is hard to ignore. Even as the range of what food critics and gourmands deem “good food” expands, the dominance of French techniques and aesthetics remains baked into the system. French methods and principles still dominate most of the world’s culinary schools and organize labor in the kitchens of countless restaurants. 

I see evidence of this everywhere in the history of modern Egyptian food: in the 19th century, Egypt’s rulers hired chefs trained in French cuisine, imported champagne and foie gras, and served French food at their banquets; in the 1920s, elite Egyptian women were sent to study cookery in England at schools where they learned classic French recipes and techniques, which they later translated into cookbooks and curricula. The women who wrote these cookbooks did include Egyptian and other Arab recipes. But in many cases––for example, Nazira Nicola and Bahiya ʿUthman’s famous cookbook––the most detailed instructions and theoretical explanations were reserved for French techniques. 

And yet there is much, much more to modern Egyptian cooking, which has its own unique set of principles, methods, and aesthetics. Some of its elements are rooted in the Egyptian kitchen’s long history, but others are the product of more recent events––evolving, for example, alongside Egyptians’ early embrace of gas stoves and the introduction of new foods like the tomato (the subject of my current book project). Just because Egyptian cooking techniques and recipes haven’t been elaborated in written texts in the same way that French cuisine has doesn’t mean we can dismiss it as inferior or less historically significant. A feminist reading of history, in fact, demands that we consider historical evidence that lies beyond “non-perishable traces” like embodied knowledge and cultural memory.

This post flips the script we typically see in the food world, which starts with French techniques or aesthetics and applies them to foods and flavors from elsewhere. Instead, I draw on tasbika, a technique central to modern Egyptian cooking, to produce a new version of a French classic, cassoulet

a yellow clay bowl full of soaked Great Northern beans a pot of tomato stew with white beans and a leek inside

I recently published an article––the kernel of my forthcoming book project––about the importance of the tomato-based tasbika to the making of modern Egypt. If you’re interested that history you can read it here (open access!). For a recipe that draws on tasbika’s alchemy to produce a rich and hearty vegetarian cassoulet, read on.


This recipe draws on tasbika, an Egyptian culinary technique, to produce a vegetarian version of the hearty French white bean stew cassoulet.

large shallow cast iron pan with roasted garlic and squash and white beans in a tomato based stew

What is cassoulet? What is tasbika? A note about sources, inspiration, and credit:

There is a lot to say about cassoulet, but Paula Wolfert’s recipes are a good place to start; her book The Cooking of Southwest France has a fantastic section on the dish (with versions from a number of French cassoulet experts) which I used as a guide when developing this recipe.

I’m sure plenty of people will take offense at the very idea of a vegetarian version of the dish (which is usually filled with sausage and various other pork products), but I’ve recently been inspired to develop one thanks to trying some excellent vegetarian cassoulets at restaurants in the past year or so. My addition of the arugula garnish and roasted butternut squash, which evokes the texture of slow cooked meat in all the most important ways, was directly inspired by a vegetarian cassoulet that I had at Exeter’s Double Locks pub last year (also Egypt has the best arugula in the world, so it seemed like a fitting balance).

You can read about the history of tasbika at length here, but in short: since the introduction of the tomato to Egypt, it has become a ubiquitous cooking method that uses tomatoes to transform humble vegetables into a hearty, rich, filling meal. While the vegetarian cassoulets I’ve tried were delicious in their own ways, they were lacking the kind of oomph that a traditional cassoulet delivers through layers of animal fat flavors. Tasbika amplifies the richness of clarified butter-browned-onions through the umami peptides of the tomato to deliver that kind of oomph for a savory stew that you’ll forget is missing meat. I owe my knowledge of tasbika to many Egyptian home cooks who have graciously educated me on the finer points of their cuisine; this is my tribute to them, and I hope it’s worthy of their culinary brilliance.

a leek cut open for cleaning


Serves 4 to 6 people


1 pound of dried white beans. I recommend using half navy beans and half Great Northern beans, but you do you
1 15 oz. ounce can of Great Northern beans, with most but not all of their liquid drained
1 medium-sized butternut squash, cut into bite-sized pieces (or about 2 cups of bite-sized squash pieces)
4-8 cloves garlic (to taste, but like, why not more?), skins left on
4 cloves garlic, chopped roughly
2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
1-2 T of clarified butter (ghee), known in Egypt as samna (use to taste)
2 medium onions, chopped (divided)
1 28 oz can of tomato puree or crushed tomatoes (I usually buy from a brand that also produces good whole canned San Marzanos –– of course, you can also use a can of those, with their juices, and crush them yourself with a wooden spoon when you add them to the stew)
1 quart vegetable broth
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 leek
2 stalks celery
1 piece kombu (optional)
Salt, black pepper, and cumin to taste
Olive oil
Vegetable oil

Several handfuls of arugula, for garnishing
Lime slices, for serving

Step 1: Prep

Soak the beans overnight, covered: rinse, pick over, and cover them with a tablespoon of salt and 3 inches of water. A lot of places say “soak overnight or for at least four hours.” I have tried this four hour thing (for science) and I will tell you, it’s not enough. Make it a proper overnight soak. (To read about why and for lots more bean cooking tips I recommend Joe Yonan’s Cool Beans.)

Prep the squash (you can do this the day before or as the tasbika base is cooking):

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Toss the squash pieces and 4-8 cloves of garlic (skins on) in olive oil and salt, pepper, and cumin till well coated. Spread them out on a baking sheet.

Roast at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for 20-25 minutes. Check on them and toss them around a bit; then return them to the oven and roast for another 10-15 minutes or until they are beginning to brown and crisp (see before and after below). Remove the skin from the garlic cloves and mix them with the pieces of squash. Set aside for now.

squash and garlic await roasting with a bit of cumingarlic and squash, after roasting!
Step 2: Tasbika base

In a sturdy pot, melt the ghee and a small glug of vegetable oil over medium high heat. Once it melts, add one chopped onion and 4 cloves of garlic onion and stir. Reduce heat to medium low and cook until the onions begin to brown.

Add the tomato puree and a generous pinch of salt. Turn the heat down as low as you can and simmer for an hour uncovered. Monitor from time to time to ensure that the sauce isn’t sticking to the bottom of the pan; if it is, add some broth, stir well, and turn the heat down a bit.

tomato puree in a pot being stirred with a wooden spoon

After an hour, the tomato should have reduced and thickened considerably. If so, add a half cup of vegetable broth and stir well. If not, turn the heat up very slightly. Cook for 30 more minutes in the same way.

Add the can of Great Northern beans with a bit of their liquid and mix in well. Continue to simmer on low heat until the tomato has reduced to a very thick consistency and the oil begins to pool on its surface (below you can see images of what this looks like).

Set aside; this is the base for your cassoulet.

very thick reduced tomato sauce with white beans and oil pooling on the surface

Step 3: Cassoulet

In a sturdy pot (you can use the same one you used to prep the tasbika) heat a few glugs of olive oil on medium low heat. Add one chopped onion, 2 cloves of sliced garlic, and generous pinches of salt and pepper. Cook on medium low heat, stirring occasionally, until they begin to soften and turn translucent.

Drain your soaked beans. Add half of them to the onions along with a half teaspoon of sugar. Stir well. Cover and cook for 10 minutes on low heat.

Add the rest of the beans, 2 cups of stock, 2 cups of the tasbika base, 1 leek, 2 whole stalks of celery, and a piece of kombu, if using (it helps soften the beans and make them easier to digest). Simmer on low heat, covered, for one hour. Check periodically to ensure the beans are not drying out and add broth and spoonfuls of tasbika as needed.

While the beans are simmering, preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

Remove the leek and celery from the pot and discard. Transfer the beans to a baking dish. If you possibly can, use a cast iron dish. Add a splash of broth and a few additional spoonfuls of tomato sauce (either from the pot where the beans were, if there is liquid left, or from your tasbika base). Mix everything together well. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes.

Check the beans, stir in a few more spoonfuls of tasbika (or more, if they are drying out or sticking to the bottom of the baking dish). Bake 30 more minutes.

Check the seasoning and adjust for salt and pepper.

Gently mix in the squash and garlic; add additional liquid if needed. Return dish to the oven, uncovered this time, until the top of the stew become textured and crispy.

Garnish with arugula and serve warm with wedges of lime and crispy bread of your choice.

white beans cooked in red sauce in a white shallow bowl, garnished with arugula

With extra thanks to the many family members and friends who tasted trial versions of this recipe over the past few months!

Further reading & listening:

Mona Russell, Creating the New Egyptian Woman: Consumerism, Education, and National Identity, 1863–1922, for information on Khedive Ismail’s taste for French luxury foods (p14)

Salma Serry, How Did Hawaa’ Magazine Influence Egypt’s Cuisine? from Afikra. Serry discusses the prominence of European recipes in the cooking inserts of Hawwa’, a major women’s magazine in midcentury Egypt

Manifesto of Rivolta Femminile, 1970

Paula Wolfert, The Cooking of South-West France, which includes a fantastic section on cassoulet.

Amy Trubek, Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession, for a history of how French (male) culinary professionals deliberately constructed their cuisine as professional, prestigious, and a marker of status.

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